2018 Chevrolet Equinox First Drive: All turbo, all-new compact SUV improves across the board

Legacy is a powerful thing, and at times it can threaten to smother the equally mighty maxim that moving ever forward is the only way to stay above water in the ultra-competitive automotive industry. Chevrolet, faced with the need to redesign its strong-selling compact SUV – the Equinox – refused to be dragged down by the temptation to simply keep riding a popular horse until it collapsed, foaming and spent, into its grave. Instead, the company realized that the future favors the bold, and elected to invest heavily in a completely new and dramatically different 2018 Chevrolet Equinox.

Keep in mind that Chevrolet has been careful not to adjust the edges of the envelope when it comes to the Equinox's mission statement, as the previous model's passenger room and footprint were competitive when compared against contemporaries like the Toyota RAV4 and the Mazda CX-5. Where things felt more than a little old-school? Under the hood, with the SUV of old offering the choice between naturally-aspirated four-cylinder and V6 engines. Cabin furnishings, too, spoke of a time when plain, hard-wearing plastics were the order of the day for budget-conscious families.

The 2018 Chevrolet Equinox breaks with the previous model in both of these areas, significantly updating its interior and adopting an all-turbo line-up of engines that shrink in size but largely maintain or exceed the performance of the units they replace. For my drive through South Carolina up to North Carolina in the redesigned SUV I was only able to sample the its entry-level 1.5-liter turbo four, which shuttles 170 horsepower and 203 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed automatic transmission, as the upcoming, 252 horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder and late-summer 1.6-liter turbodiesel units were unavailable even in pre-production form.

Still, there is more than a little merit in testing the most modest engine configuration of any new automobile, because if that baseline shines then it's more than likely that more muscled models will impress as well. The 2018 Equinox's 1.5-liter demonstrates that engineers continue to improve the drivability of pint-and-a-half sized engines across the board, as it felt remarkably un-fussy even though it misses out on the nine-speed automatic offered with the 2.0-liter option (denied to the diesel, too). It also happens to be rated at a respectable 28-mpg combined in front-wheel drive spec. Aside from a bit of whoosh when pushed hard, there was little to betray the small statue of the turbocharged engine on either two-lane roads (where passing required no careful planning) or interstate highways (with 80-mph cruising a non-issue, as long as you were able to avoid the local constabulary).

Part of that pluck has to do with the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox bucking expectations and actually shrinking in terms of both length and on the scale. The new SUV is 400 lbs lighter than the model it replaces, and it's also just under five inches shorter, making it easier to park and less bulky in terms of styling. Renewed concentration on aero efficiency has further contributed to the sleeker looks of the Equinox, and despite its reduced package the vehicle manages to hang on to much of the cargo capacity and rear passenger room of its larger progenitor (although its useful 63.5 cubic feet of total storage space still misses the class-leading mark). The lighter step was appreciated when guiding the vehicle through the sinuous backbone of the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the Chevrolet stopped short of 'fun,' but nevertheless felt planted and confident with a minimum of body roll.

If there's a flaw to be found in the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox's revised approach to the compact SUV market, it has to do with its features and pricing, rather than its execution. The Equinox raises the bar for GM when it comes to the availability of active safety (the innovative vibrating Safety Alert Seat, forward collision alert, lane keeping assistance and departure warning, blind sport monitoring, and a surround view camera are all on offer), connectivity (Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and two versions of the MyLink touchscreen interface can be had), and comfort (heated and cooled leather seats, heated steering wheel) but you've got to drop more than a little coin to get the good stuff.

A loss-leading Equinox L model is advertised at an MSRP of $24,475, which locks you out of any and all options related to safety or comfort. It's not until you cough up another $3k for the Equinox LT that you gain not just a number of additional standard niceties, but also the permission to hand over more money for the features and packages listed in the preceding paragraph. All-wheel drive, for example, requires a minimum spend of $28k (LS trim), and an AWD Premier model comparable to the version of the Equinox I drove checks in at more than $35,000 – and this is all with the most affordable 1.5-liter engine installed between the front fenders, with further premiums likely for those seeking the 2.0 or turbodiesel editions.

How much of a problem is this for Chevrolet? It's going to depend on a number of factors, with the most prominent being that you can pick up similarly-equipped rivals for less money. If GM decides to stack incentives on top of the Equinox – a fair assumption, given past practices with the vehicle – then this may become a moot point. There's also the X factor of being the only diesel model on the market once the 1.6-liter motor comes on-line later this year (likely beating the Mazda CX-5 to the punch), with the potential for Chevrolet to soak up angst-ridden VW owners seeking their 40-mpg fix elsewhere. The Equinox is deserving of attention from families and space-seeking commuters everywhere, but whether it will fit comfortably into their budgets remains to be seen.